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In 2007, Wexner had a hunch that Gee might be ready to return to Columbus, that Gee was a land-grant man at heart. Like many of the nation's other leading public universities, Ohio State owes its origin to the Morrill Act of 1862, which leveraged the vast public lands of the young United States to endow schools for common farmers, mechanics and technical workers. From that seed, Ohio State has grown into one of the biggest drivers of the Ohio economy, with more than 61,000 students on six campuses, more than $700 million in annual research expenditures, a payroll of more than $1.6 billion and offices in every Ohio county. When Gee explains why he took a pay cut to return to OSU (dropping from the rarefied ranks of million-dollar presidents into the still cushy high six figures), he talks about the culture of usefulness that makes land-grant schools more willing to innovate. Elite private schools, he submits, "are always saying, 'That's not the way we do things.'"
And change is the whole ball game, Gee insists. Higher education has become too expensive because institutions are frozen in the inefficient past. Departments fail to collaborate. Curriculums have become outdated. The tenure system too often rewards useless publication over real-world impact. "We crush the enthusiasm out of our young faculty," says Gee. The many elements of American higher ed from community colleges to giant research universities operate as rival duchies and neglected colonies rather than as players on a single team. "People look at me like I'm crazy when I say that our greatest partnership here at Ohio State should be with the community colleges," Gee says. "We're all part of the same mission, which is education from pre-K through life."
A special commission of the U.S. Department of Education arrived at many of the same conclusions in a 2006 report. America's colleges and universities, in some respects the best in the world, are failing to keep up with the nation's growing needs. Higher education is "increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive," the panel summarized. "It is an enterprise that has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy."
Since returning to Ohio State, Gee has cut costs by nearly $100 million; among other efficiencies, he succeeded this time around in streamlining the liberal-arts colleges. Two new centers focused on attacking global poverty and hunger draw faculty from over a dozen departments, breaking down old walls that divide traditional disciplines. A deal has been struck to enhance collaboration with Ohio's largest private research facility, boosting the influence of both institutions. Meanwhile, teachers in the troubled Columbus public schools are receiving extra training through an Ohio State initiative, and the university is leading efforts to revitalize low-income Columbus neighborhoods.
The recession will be a blessing, Gee told a group of college and university presidents last winter, if it forces schools to "wholly reinvent ourselves." Consider, he suggested, "blowing up completely eradicating" the concept of all academic departments. Welcome the imminent demise of picayune scholarly journals and the publish-or-perish culture that goes with them. Kick free of the conviction that professors all need doctorates, when so much of what's required is hands-on experience. (Following his own advice, Gee hired a Johnson & Johnson executive sans Ph.D. as dean of Ohio State's Fisher College of Business.)
Not everyone agrees with Gee's call for a new direction. In a recent essay in the New York Times, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust expressed concern that the land-grant spirit is endangering loftier goals for higher education. "America's deep-seated notion that a college degree serves largely instrumental purposes," as she put it, threatens to enslave the academy to "immediate and worldly purposes"; she argued that society should not neglect the role of higher education in producing "critical perspectives" and "doubt." Faust concluded, "At this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society."
It's not every day that the president of one of America's largest public universities tangles publicly with the president of America's most venerated private one. But when Gee read Faust's essay, he couldn't contain himself. Speaking to the Ohio State faculty in October, he took on Faust's essay as "fundamentally flawed." "We make no apologies," Gee declared, for "working to ensure that our graduates have the skills needed to thrive." Learning to think critically need not conflict with learning to work productively, he suggested leaving the clear but unspoken conclusion that the public deserves more than "unsettling questions" from the institutions that hold the keys to the future.
There has always been a tendency among some academics under pressure to pull up the drawbridge of the ivory tower and sniff, Go away we're thinking big thoughts. From his long experience, Gee has learned that pressure is the secret to turning lumbering institutions into lithe enterprises. For instance, he recently pushed through a change in Ohio State's calendar, from an aging quarterly system to a more sensible semester schedule. He didn't actually care much about the calendar, but he knew that the change would force faculty to rethink and redesign all their courses. "Yes," Gee told his colleagues last winter, "I am calling for intentional upheaval," a stripping of bureaucracies and boundaries at some of the world's most bureaucratic and hidebound institutions. The U.S. needs to step up its game, become more creative, more flexible, more innovative in more ways. Who can take us there if not our educators?
Gee delivered this manifesto with a grin, as always, and his audience was rapt. "I am a bit odd," he summed up. "I am somewhat evangelical. But I am not crazy."
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